One of the draws of live sports is being surrounded by people all rooting for the same cause. High-fiving random strangers after a big play, joining in crowd chants and songs, trying to catch t-shirts—they all go into making a sporting event a special experience.
However, the pandemic, like it has for so much of the world, has taken that magic away; it’s also introduced a lot of uncertainty into sports. The MLB, NFL, and NCAA have had to move multiple games around. The NBA postponed their season for more than four months before finishing in a makeshift “bubble” at Disney World; the WNBA bubble was shortly down the road in Bradenton, Fla. The NHL split its “bubble” into two cities, Edmonton and Toronto, as the league wrapped up its season.
Sports leagues have had to quickly shift their plans as they try to keep their seasons moving, and the revenue coming in, even without sports fans in the stands. Here’s a look at what’s worked best.
Bringing the Game Day Experience to Sports Fans
The intimacy of the fan experience is hard to replicate, but the NBA came pretty close with its “virtual fans” in the stands. In collaboration with Microsoft, the league invited roughly 320 sports fans per game to join the action. The home team filled up seven sections, the away team got only one, and the final two were reserved for the NBA.
On the court, the players could hear some of the fan cheers. The league also piped in sounds recorded from games before the pandemic hit. When viewed at home, it almost sounded like a traditional broadcast, with cheers coming in at the right moments.
Reporting Live…From Home
Miami Herald sports writer Michelle Kaufman wrote about her experience as a virtual fan watching the Miami Heat in this year’s playoffs.
“Although reporters aren’t normally allowed to cheer, I made an exception for this assignment,” Kaufman wrote. “I clapped when the starting lineups were announced and sang the national anthem. I pumped a fist when the Heat made three-pointers and waved my arms when the Pacers shot free throws. Even though I was in my dining room, I felt like part of the game.”
It would have been irresponsible for the NBA to invite fans to the bubble (or to any arena), as the risk for spreading the virus would be much higher. The virtual fan idea allowed people to capture the spirit of being at a game, even if they were comfortably hanging out at home. And, as Kaufman noted, there was still a sense of camaraderie in her virtual section.
“When I commented that my husband made me popcorn, a fan lamented not having a husband to bring her popcorn, and another fan began reciting his phone number,” she wrote. “By the second half, we all had bonded.”
Another fan commented that the characters from the virtual section—“the loud guy, the old-timer, the guy who’s constantly texting, the eater, the beer drinker, the hyperactive child”—are the same types of people you’d see live at the arena. Sports fans just take it in from the comfort of their own home, avoiding traffic jams on the way out.
From Cutouts to Tom Hanks
Other leagues have tried similar “game day” experiences. Taking a page from European soccer, Major League Baseball allowed fans to purchase Correx cutouts of themselves or loved ones to “take in” the game live from the stadium.
The level of creativity in these cutouts was pretty impressive. The Minnesota Twins featured giant heads of former players, while the Los Angeles Dodgers still included plenty of celebrities, a staple at any Los Angeles home game.
The Oakland Athletics offered multiple cutout options, including pets, visiting fans, and donations to fund ALS research. The team also added some fun Easter Eggs, such as its former mule mascot, Charlie O, and a hot dog-slinging Tom Hanks, who worked as a park vendor in the 1970s.
And if you were at a Seattle home game and your cutout got hit by a home run, you still got to keep the ball. You didn’t even need to bring a glove to the park.
A Thriving Social Media Landscape
Without the ability to sit in the stands, sports leagues are turning to social media more than ever before. Just about every team and many players have their own accounts, though some leagues are less restrictive about what players can post.
For example, the NBA generally leans into its players’ social media presences—and that’s a good thing. Most NBA teams spent more than two months in the bubble, so we got to see an inside look at how they passed time outside of game day.
Brook Lopez got caught in the arcade during a storm and showed off his pinball skills. Troy Daniels shared how he and his teammates prepared for a game, including ice bath recoveries. Matisse Thybulle launched an entire vlog series called The Off-Season. Jayson Tatum read bedtime stories to his son.
The bubble was such an interesting concept that entire @NBABubbleLife and @WNBABubbleLife accounts were created to keep tabs on everything going on in the bubble.
This unfettered look at players benefited the NBA in two ways. It gave them a tremendous amount of user-generated content, which teams and the league could share. It also helped fans connect with players in ways that they couldn’t before. Players are fairly open on social media, but with how unusual the entire bubble situation was, they tackled social with even more gusto.
Partnering with Brands in Smart Ways
The concept of brands teaming up with sports teams and leagues hasn’t gone away, even in the midst of the pandemic. However, we’re seeing more strategic sponsorships and partnerships.
With more fans taking in the action from home, brands have worked to recreate the game day experience. PepsiCo delivered a Tailgate in a Box package to fans that won sweepstakes, offering tailgate essentials like custom cornhole sets and projectors, and of course, a ton of Pepsi products.
Meanwhile, Bud Light is running a season-long Showtime Cam contest. Randomly selected fans that tweet #ShowtimeCam and #BudLightSweepstakes have the chance to win a “Showtime Cam” experience, where they can celebrate memorable moments with players.
Of course, each team has their own unique flair. Frito Lay capitalized on that by creating customized “FanTrack” bags to recreate the feel of being at an NFL stadium. Available in 10 unique team designs, these bags use chip-activated motion sensors to play each team’s iconic fan chats.
Chips activating other chips—we’ve gone truly meta with our snacking.
Knowing that fans likely won’t be traveling to each other’s houses for a massive watch party, Verizon’s Yahoo Sports app offers a “Watch Together” feature. Through a synchronized livestream, up to four friends can watch live local and primetime games on their phones. Verizon and the NFL partnered on a five-year livestream agreement in 2017, so we’ll likely see more creative ways to view the game in the coming years.
The Opportunity to Try New Ideas on Sports Fans
One of baseball’s biggest problems? Games take too long. Unlike the other major sports, there’s no clock in baseball, and about one in every 12 games goes into extra innings. As a result, the average baseball game in 2019 took three hours and ten minutes to complete.
This year, with Covid-19 delaying the start of the season by about four months, baseball already knew its schedule would look different, so the sport introduced some new rule changes, too.
A universal designated hitter allowed National League pitchers to focus on pitching, instead of also worrying about hitting every few innings. And it worked. On average, National League pitchers gave up fewer hits and struck out more batters per nine innings.
The league also tried a fun rule, with a runner automatically starting on second base in extra innings. That helped cut down on overall gametime by four minutes while adding increased intensity to the action.
Changes are coming to college sports, too. This year, the NCAA Tournament was days away from tipping off before the pandemic shut down the sports world.
Traditionally, the NCAA hosts tournament games in 13 cities throughout the country. But with travel plans still looking uncertain, the NCAA is planning to host the entire tournament in Indianapolis, and it may include fewer than the usual 68 teams.
It’s the reality that sports leagues are still facing even several months into the pandemic. With so much uncertainty, sports and brands have to be prepared, flexible, and willing to think creatively to still deliver for their fans.